Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

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Wednesday, Jul 11, 2007

India is a massive, crowded country of hustle and grind.  With so many people, competitive drive isn’t just inevitable, it’s admirable.  Indian audiences look up to stars who they believe exemplify the rugged warrior virtues that spell success: lithe, statuesque Amitabh Bachan, brawny Sanjay Dutt, or Salman Khan.  It’s rare that someone comes along who represents the average Indian, and is loved for it.  India doesn’t usually have the wistful admiration for the reticent, yearning everyman. But if the country had their own versions of Jimmy Stewart and Gary Cooper, they’d probably be very close to Dilip Kumar, Naseeruddin Shah, and Shahrukh Khan.


For connoisseurs of Indian cinema, in terms of acting, there’s B.D.K. and A.D.K. - before Dilip Kumar, and after Dilip Kumar.  In 1949, he gave an intense, anguished breakthrough performance as the unrelenting love interest of Nargis in Mehboob Khan’s Andaaz.  Throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s, he was one of the leading stars, and the only one who was respected for his genuine acting talent. In character and career path, Kumar resembles Laurence Olivier, an urbane tragedian with an occasional penchant for light comedy, as well as Humphrey Bogart—someone wounded by life, cynical, but still rising to the occasion.  His greatest performance, as the defiant prince Salim in Mughal-E-Azam (1960), brought together his fascination with history, his theatrical desire to inhabit a great historical character, and his nuanced, vitalizing performance. It is one of the greatest Indian movies with the archetypal dilemma of all Indian heroes at the center - the choice of pride vs. duty.


Naseeruddin Shah is the great maverick of Indian stars. He’s so off-beat and unconventional in his choices, that he’s not even your traditional star.  Sharp-eyed and wiry, he resembles Jack Lemmon in the ‘60s, full of nervy energy and mordant wit.  He’s best known to international audiences as the resilient patriarch of Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding (2001).  In the ‘70s he collaborated with art film directors like Shyam Benegal, Shekhar Kapur, and Muzzaffir Ali in contemplative pieces, like Junoon (1978), Masoom (1983), and Umrao Jaan (1981).  In Umrao Jaan, Shah proved his sublime gift for character-acting by taking a minor role, that of a brothel-madam’s son and indolent pimp, Gauhar Mirza, and transforming him into an unforgettable comic portrait of ineffectual dandyism (the scene where he tries to pass off Umrao Jaan’s poetry is his own is marvelous in its feigned pomposity).  Shah continues to show off his skill year after year in films like The Great New Wonderful (2005), director Danny Leiner’s bittersweet series of vignettes about New Yorkers coping with their lives in the wake of 9/11, and in an enigmatic portrayal of a shady Bihari politician in Vishal Bhardwaj’s take on Othello, Omkara (2007).


Shahrukh Khan’s reputation precedes him. He’s huge. His celebrity is at level with Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor at the time of their Andy Warhol silkscreen portraits: movie actor as cultural icon. Swarms of people gather at his shows, his movies, and whenever he is hosting an event.  How did someone whose appeal is that he’s an accessible, everyguy grow into a superstar? Something similar happened to Tom Hanks, yet few people want to mob him when he’s in public.  People have to be literally restrained when Shahrukh walks by, and not just teens, but middle-aged women and men as well. Shahrukh’s movies in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s had him as an awkward, yearning teen.  Early on he showed great range in playing both heroes and villains.  His relentless stalker in Yash Chopra’s Darr (1993) was a disarmingly poignant portrayal of a morally repugnant character, not unlike Peter Lorre’s child-murderer in M


His affability and gift for musical performance shot him up the ranks to being one of the most versatile, bankable actors. In 1998, two movies made him the most popular star in Indian commercial cinema, the deliriously inane, but wildly popular Badshaah and Karan Johar’s endearingly schmaltzy Parent Trap send-up, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. His popularity grew, and in recent years he’s shown a gift for nuanced acting in films like Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003), Veer-Zaara (2004), Swades (2004) and Don (2005). He’s one of India’s most well-rounded stars, a thoughtful actor as well as a great dancer and performer, but most important, he’s someone Indians identify with intimately; he could be the teasing neighbor, or the winsome cousin, or a protective brother. Watching him talk to his awe-struck fans on the game show he hosts on his off-season from making movies, Kaun Banega Crorepati (the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? ) is really quite amazing: he’s unusually giving and open for someone so famous, and the audience responds with unabashed enthusiasm and gratitude. In spite of all Shahrukh’s celebrity, he’s never forgotten from where he came.



Dilip Kumar, early ‘50s



Naseeruddin Shah



Shahrukh Khan in Swades, 2004


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Tuesday, Jul 10, 2007


In a recent piece for Entertainment Weekly, bestselling author (and frequent contributor to the media mag) Stephen King made an interesting point about the entire Harry Potter series. When the final book is released later this month (July 2007), it will represent a nearly 10 year journey for the readers who first fell in love with the orphaned boy wizard and his outsized adventures. He suggests that an eight year old who was drawn into the world of Hogwarts and Quidditch, the Sorcerer’s Stone and the Prisoner of Azkaban will now be close to 18. They will have passed through grade school and may have even graduated. All now possess a world view radicalized by the onset of puberty and dating. While he admits that they should still be affected about the way creator J. K. Rowling ends the journey, he wonders if they haven’t moved beyond the emotions they associate with the character and his cohorts.


This may explain why the latest film in the ongoing cinematic interpretation of the novels – Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix – is so different from the other installments. There is something very intriguing going on here, a fascinating grown up subtext that suggests, as its fanbase has aged, so has the entire Potter mythology. Indeed, it’s time to stop dreaming and get down to the business at hand. Initially, such a shift is far more compelling than all the prophesying and enchantment. Almost like an espionage thriller from World War II, rebellion is in the air, both metaphorically and magically. And our hero Harry is at the center of an unpopular socio-political position. For those who’ve forgotten the previous narrative, the now notorious student tried to save a classmate from wicked Lord Valdemort’s deadly designs, and his failure has filled him with guilt. In the meantime, the Ministry of Magic (how very 1984) is downplaying the rumors of the Dark Lord’s return, and is setting up a behind the scenes plot to silence Harry once and for all.


Thus one walks, woozy and a tad paranormal punchdrunk, into this evocative entertainment, a movie meant to move away from the spectacle oriented elements of the series and into the emotional and interpersonal heft that transforms eye candy into epics. Trying to maneuver three major plotpoints at once – the ongoing battle with Voldemort, Harry’s decision to gather up a wizard’s army, and a newfound restrictive reign of terror at Hogwarts thanks to the arrival of Dark Arts instructor, the sweetly sinister Delores Umbridge – may seem like an impossible task, and many fans have worried how the longest book in the series would manage to make its multifaceted points. Even more disconcerting, longtime series screenwriter Steve Kloves (he did the adaptation on the previous four films) is not involved this time around. Indeed, both director David Yates and writer Michael Goldenburg are new to the Rowling realm.


As stated before, Harry is under close scrutiny by the Ministry. When he wards off an attack using a banned spell (he is not old enough to employ it), a witch’s witch hunt ensues. At a hearing before the board, our hero is defended by his loyal friend and Hogwart’s headmaster Dumbledore. Yet all this does is make the bureaucracy bitter. They bring in Umbridge to lay down order – and, some fear, pave the way for Voldemort’s eventual take over – turning her particularly important class into an ineffectual routine of rote memorization. Angered that they aren’t learning how to defend themselves, Harry is convince by longtime best friends Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger to start teaching the others. Soon, a ragtag group of recruits are using a secret room to prepare for battle. As Harry is haunted by dreams of the Dark Lord, a confrontation between all three – the boy, the beast, and the battleaxe – looms large.


For full blown Potter heads, there is no need to worry about the infusion of new creative forces.  While some of the subtlety and depth from Phoenix’s fleshed out pages may be missing, this fifth installment is still immensely entertaining. Beginning with a bang and ending on an incredible display of martial magic, Yates is a director who understands cinematic shorthand. He gets lots of information across in clever newspaper montages, using the iconic Daily Prophet as a means of supplying backstory and subtext. Similarly, minor flashbacks for the previous films fill in informational blanks that a 129 minute movie can’t possibly afford to confront. Granted, anyone coming into this movie blind, without an inkling about what’s going on or where we are in the Potter paradigm will be wildly confused. Like walking into the middle of a play’s third act, number five is not the place to start your Muggle modification.


But if you’re invested in the whole wizard universe, Order of the Phoenix should provide untold personal pleasures. Aside from seeing your favorite characters again (Gary Oldman’s emblematic Sirius Black, Julie Walters’ jovial Mrs. Weasley), new recruits to the storyline also shine. For her part, Helena Bonham Carter is perfectly depraved as Death Eater Bellatrix Lastrange, and Evanna Lynch is defiantly ditzy as slightly loony loner girl Luna Lovegood. But the real secondary star here – after Daniel Radcliff’s dazzling turn as our Harry – is Imelda Staunton as the devilish Delores Umrbidge. Playing the part of underhanded villainess perfectly, she exudes a kind of pent up paranoia and dictatorial derangement. In her office outfitted with live kitten commemorate plates (tacky and terrifying), her preference for pink hides a soul as black as pitch. With the help of her Inquisition Squad – nothing subtle about this amoral administrator – she begins to undermine everything Dumbledore has done. Before long, she’s managed to turn Hogwarts into a stifling center of cold conformity.


Naturally, we demand a massive comeuppance, and one of the many joys in this thoroughly engaging film is watching Yates and Goldenburg build to her possible retribution. Following the continued quest to discover the truth about Voldemort and the title organization’s preparations for the eventual showdown, this is a movie that makes us aware of its intricacies, and asks us to pay close attention to what is going on. Of course, it helps to have read the four previous books (or at the very least, seen the other films), and yet Yates never allows things to tumble completely out of control. Those pining for all the meat in Rowling’s writing will probably be disappointed – its impossible to condense almost 800 pages into a little over 130 – but if they accept the film on its own terms, they will find a great deal to enjoy.


So will those just slightly outside the fervent fanbase. Yates has fun with his visuals here, rendering the familiar spaces of Hogwarts and the newer locales (like a Ministry mausoleum filled with crystal ball prophecies) into stunning cinematic backdrops. He also plays within the genre, referencing Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (which is ironic, considering that the ex-pat Python was the first director approached about helming the Potter franchise) and drops a foray into Lord of the Rings territory (as when Robbie Coltrane’s Hagrid shares a ‘secret’ with Harry and Hermione). And King is partially right – this is a darker, more demanding Potter plot. Kids who’ve just been introduced to the wizard’s wonderstuff might not be ready to take on such adult material. Death and evil are in the air after all, and Harry’s fate definitely hangs in the balance.


While one might question the viability of the franchise once Rowling releases the last Potter tome (imagine how films six and seven will play out once all the beans are finally spilled), five finds the series settling in quite nicely. There will be complaints from completists, and without a foundation of familiarity with the serialized narratives basics, one could become instantly lost. But for full fledged fantasy that doesn’t skimp on the imagination or the intrigue, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is a brave, exciting entertainment. It makes the impending end of the series all the sadder.



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Monday, Jul 9, 2007


When it broadcast its final episode on 8 August, 1999, fans feared they had seen the last of their beloved cowtown puppet show. After 10 seasons, 198 installments, and a major channel switch, Mystery Science Theater 3000 was offering up its last original take on bad movies – in this case, the Italian spy spoof Danger: Diabolik. As with all last shows, the series tried to wrap up various storylines, explain away certain elements, and end on a proper note of closure and nostalgia. While MST3K as it was otherwise known went on to last in reruns for three more years, the company behind the production, Best Brains, slowly folded up shop and dismissed any future potential projects. It did indeed seem like we’d never see the likes of Joel, Mike, Crow and Tom Servo ever again.


Fast forward to 2006. Former MST head writer Mike Nelson has been making a name for himself as a solo satirist, helping fledgling DVD distributor Legend Films sell copies of crappy public domain titles like Reefer Madness and Plan 9 from Outer Space. Thanks to his clever commentaries, similar in style to his old days on the Satellite of Love, Nelson was renewing interest in old films, while providing hope to fans that a Mystery Science revival is around the corner. Adding fuel to the fire was RiffTrax, an MP3 service started by the company that allowed Nelson, along with fellow familiar faces Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy, to crack wise over contemporary movies. The popularity of these downloadable comic criticisms, hitting on such well known classics as The Matrix, Battlefield Earth, and Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, proved that there was an audience eager to experience more bad movie bashing. 


Now, thanks to Shout! Factory, The Film Crew is here. Picking up almost directly where Mystery Science left off, and losing none of the previous show’s wit or audacity, Nelson, Corbett, and Murphy are back, playing loveable losers working for an obsessed media mogul. Their job – provide a commentary track for every movie (bad or good) lacking same. After an online poll allowed fans to choose the first film to be tackled, the 10 July release of Hollywood After Dark shows incredible product promise. While the backstory and skit material make up a much smaller portion of the overall presentation, the quintessential quipping we’ve come to expect from these fully seasoned pros is provided in slaphappy spades. For Mystery Science devotees, this is an undeniable dream come true.


For those unfamiliar with how the process works, here is a short rundown. As a movie plays in the background, our three heroes use the hackneyed plotting, pathetic dialogue, and obtuse directorial choices as fodder for their funny business. They make jokes. They crack wise. They provide a plethora of pop culture allusions, and frequently fall into surreal, self-absorbed inferences – all in the name of mockery and merriment. During the MST days, it was a human (Mike, or series creator Joel Hodgson) and two robots (voiced by Trace Beaulieu, Corbett, and Murphy) doing the ribbing. Now, it’s in the guise of three bumbling archivists, hired by Bob Honcho (seen and hear via portrait and telephone only – Charles Townsend style) to provide his much beloved alternate narrative tracks. There are no silhouettes on the screen, no scientific experimentation subplot. Just grade-Z films and grade-A funnymen.


And Hollywood After Dark is the perfect picture to start off with. Culled from the days when exploitation could make hundreds of sow’s ears out of a couple of cinematic silk purses, strippers and Navy seamen take an unbelievably bum rap as future Golden Girl Rue McClanahan proves that even noted television stars had to get their embarrassing start somewhere. Yes, crazy as it seems, everyone’s favorite oversexed sitcom matron actually began her career in the low-rent films of the grindhouse circuit. Long before she became a small-screen staple in shows like Maude, she was churning out crap like The Grass Eater, Door-to-Door Maniac, and How To Succeed with Girls. Yet two of the films she made with journeyman John Hayes—1963’s Five Minutes to Love (originally entitled The Rotten Apple) and 1968’s Walk the Angry Beach (later called Hollywood After Dark)—represent the nadir of her reputation with the raincoat crowd. Talky, trashy, and just a little too turgid for most genre fans, both films represent over-processed scripts with nearly incoherent consideration for cinematic basics like narrative and characterization.


For its part, Hollywood After Dark is just a heist film welded to a melodrama and spiced with a pair of strip scenes to give the debauchery demographic something to sneer over. At the core is a lover’s triangle between Rue’s Sandy, Jack Vorno’s Tony, and clinical depression. Both of our leads have personas baked in hopeless melancholy and each one expresses it in a decidedly different way. Tony gets liquored up, argues with complete strangers, and sulks. Sandy sashays her fanny, gets molested on the casting couch, and teases her paramour. Together, they’re about as much fun as Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald at a marriage retreat. But writer/director Hayes is obviously not out for levity and hi-jinks. He wants to sell this film as a frightening exposé, a chance to see how Tinseltown tears apart, chews up, and spits out people like Tony and Sandy every single day. Unfortunately, instead of just making a documentary about the local bus depot, he decided to forge ahead with a scattered script full of lame action scenes and half-started heart-to-hearts.


Thanks to the direct to home video dynamic, which keeps the nasty standards and practices pundits at bay, The Film Crew can take on the baser elements in the narrative – burlesque, sexual battery, criminal intent – and lay into them with equally off-color comments. There is no cursing here, but fans not used to hearing their favorite armchair critics talking about genitalia and horndogging may be thrown off a bit. Similarly, these new installments sound less rehearsed than previous MST style strafing. Murphy and Corbett frequently break up over their own gags, and there are several moments when the choice of a particular word or slightly crude comment has the gang backpeddling in obvious disbelief. Yet for the most part, this is quality old school slamming, the mockery a minute amusement we’ve come to know and love. While McClanahan is barbequed quite nicely, her co-star Vorno get’s more than his fair share of static. And it’s even worse for big league bad guy Nick (played by Paul Bruce). From his oil slicked hair to mouth full of tantalizing teeth, the guys can’t get enough of his manic mobster.


About halfway through the presentation, a standard work siren goes off, and soon the Crew is on a “lunch break”. It’s interesting that the DVD would employ such a conceit, since one thing MST3K fans will notice right off the bat is how weird the concept plays without the standard commercial break every few minutes. Back during the original series, these pauses acted like rib tickling rest stops. Not only did they give the creators a chance to offer up themed skits and songs, but the audience was allowed a moment to compose itself before the next onslaught of silliness. Here, after 30 straight minutes, one feels the need for some downtime. For their part, Nelson, Murphy and Corbett hold an “eat and meet”, where bizarre corporate spin speak substitutes for easygoing meal talk. Perhaps a tad too clever for its own good, it may be more inside than Office Space. Here’s hoping the next few installments in the series offer up less mannered material.


Indeed, Shout! Factory will be releasing future “episodes” including Killers from Space, The Giant of Marathon, and the bad movie classic Wild Women of Wongo. If Hollywood After Dark is any indication of the quality we can expect, one suspects that the Film Crew could be around for a very long time. DVD has helped redefine the rights issues that used to plague Mystery Science, and with a wealth of available public domain/easily obtainable material at their disposal, one imagines that the series is subject to the interest of the participants. Anyone who has longed to hear those mighty Midwestern voices once again violating the sacred vow of silence during a stagnant cinematic cesspool can now fully rejoice. While Rifftrax may have the marquee value, The Film Crew is coming up fast. This essential digital diversion is the answer to many a MiSTies prayers. 


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Sunday, Jul 8, 2007


While it’s never wise to rape an entire generation’s childhood memories for your own self-centered means, Hollywood still wants to be the biggest motion picture pedophile on the block. Name a cartoon and/or kiddie series – He-Man, GI Joe, The Care Bears - and somewhere, in a studio bungalow, an overpaid hack is trying to come to grips with how to re-imagine the title’s otherwise limited appeal. Perhaps no other form of filmic laziness – sequels, prequels, spin-offs – has resulted in such finite returns as live action cartoon updates. Examples like the live action Rocky and Bullwinkle fiasco, the horrendous Garfield films, and the horribly mismanaged Flintstones films have proven that – all Transformers aside – when it comes to bringing juvenilia to the silver screen, Tinsel Town is still in the zygote stages.


Now comes the most noxious example of this movie molestation yet – Underdog. Disney, not known for the gentile handling of kid vid past (Inspector Gadget), has decided to stop whoring out its own past masterworks and, instead, violate the innocent joys of the W. Watts Biggers’ television series. A staple of Saturday mornings for the majority of the ‘60s, the beloved superhero hound and his unique blend of wit and wackiness remains the perfect symbolic stepping stone between preschool entertainment and tween level treats. Putting it another way, the adventures of Shoeshine Boy, Sweet Polly Purebred, and the rest of the Underdog domain (including offshoots like Tennessee Tuxedo, Klondike Kat, and the great Go Go Gophers) helped wee ones make the transition from passive to active viewers. Biggers created characters and situations kids could invest themselves in, with just enough subtle satire to keep the parents pleased. There were even principled morals thrown in for good measure.


Of course, the best way for the House of Mouse and its corrupt creative staff to deal with updating this clear cult favorite is to literally toss out everything that made the original show stellar. However, in order to understand such a major misfire, the initial Underdog mythos must be explored. In the animated series, Shoeshine Boy was an anthropomorphic pup, working in a city of human beings as a benevolent boot black. His girlfriend was canine TV personality Sweet Polly Purebred, and together they maintained a kind of pleasing platonic romance. Whenever trouble loomed for the metropolitan citizenry, and Polly in particular, Underdog took his Super Energy Vitamin Pill and transforms into the title character. Then he would confront one of several recurring villains, including dwarf mastermind Simon Barsinister and wolf gangster Riff Raff. Speaking in rhyme and expressing a truth and justice mantra, our furry champion always saved the day – even if it took a few serialized installments to achieve victory.


In addition, each half hour episode contained supporting segments, little mini movies featuring ersatz educational and instructive messages. Granted, most of the material was couched in classic animated slapstick, the goofy comings and goings of talking penguins, Native American rodents, and – of all things – a senile geographical explorer. This helped divide up the typical Underdog adventure into several cliffhanger sections, while developing a whole new array of memorable characters for the show to profit from. None of this was done out of artistic nobility, mind you. Biggers worked as an advertising executive for General Mills, makers of fine sugar coated breakfast treats preferred by pre-adolescent appetites. All he wanted was pen and ink salesmen. But thanks to artist Joe Harris and creative team Chet Stover and Tread Covington, along with the amazing voiceover work of actor Wally Cox (a definitive turn), Underdog was much more than a cereal shill.     


So how did the geniuses over in Walt’s world decide to deal with this classic character? Did they intend to bring him back in pure 2D cell animation form, forgoing all the possible pointless pop culture updates to deliver unfettered Underdog? No, they decided to go the live action route (strike one) and make the cur champion a real dog (strike two). They then revamped his origins, removing the power pill (strike three) to forge some kind of X-Men/Hulk happenstance (dog ends up in nuclear reactor thingamajiggy – strike four?). Polly is now a pooch as well (strike…oh, who cares anymore) and our supposed hero has a human owner (grrrrrrrr!) to keep him in line. Voiced by Jason Lee (huh?) and costarring little person powerhouse Peter Dinklage as Barsinister (the only genius move in this entire gagfest), we end up with something looking like Superman with fleas, a generic action film dumbed down substantially to keep the bratlings at bay (oh, and did we mention that Riff Raff is now a Rottweiler, and apparently a rival for Polly’s affections – NOOOO!!!)


The numerous numbskull moves made by the people behind the production are nothing compared to who is helming this atrocity in the making. Thanks to a script credited to three individuals – newbies Craig A. Williams and Joe Piscatella, along with industry fixture Alan (Zoom) Rifkin – but probably touched by a dozen or so illiterate cinematic scribblers, and the dim directorial flair of Racing Stripes’ Frederik Du Chau, there is a wonderful aroma of predicated failure wafting off of this turkey. The trailer plays like every animal-oriented cliché ever conceived (jokes about gas, pee, and butt sniffing are plentiful) and the blatant CGI used to capture the critters makes the movements appear stiffer than the original cartoon’s dynamic. Like the awful robotic baby in the equally abysmal Son of the Mask, the incredibly complex movements of your basic beagle seem to baffle the multiple motherboards of the F/X techs tools.


Now, there is nothing wrong with creating your own canine superhero, giving him human qualities thanks to a freak experiment, and building an entire film out of his amiable adventures. Or simply stay with the notion of a parallel universe where animals easily coexist and speak perfect English. Oh wait, didn’t they already make that movie and call it Cats and Dogs? And didn’t it die at the box office? Granted, Disney isn’t aiming this movie at fans of the original TV show. In fact, they have obviously avoided anything that would remind viewers of their childhood chum. No, this is Underdog designed for the post-millennial age, an entity only betrothed to its own disposability, calculated to make a fast potential franchise buck before living out life in DVD stud. While the House of Mouse is downplaying future animation sequels, there’s no such mandate on live action direct to video features. That means that even if it bombs, our tick-ridden friend will be back in Underdog 2: Curse of the Choke Chain and Underdog Returns: Puppy Power!


Listen, no one is faulting Disney for trying. The business of show is a cutthroat world. Everyone is anxious to exploit product awareness, create commercial interest, and manufacture new revenue streams. Digging into the past for present day projects is nothing new (just ask one Cecil B. DeMille, who more or less remade every silent movie he ever produced), but it’s the reinvention trump card that has fans and film aficionados up in arms. See, a studio can’t just take an old icon – say Alvin and the Chipmunks – and deal directly with what made the original so memorable. No, they have to add ridiculous contemporary characteristics – how about a splash of hip hop – to mesh with the fad gadget mindset, and pray that the potential fallout and backlash doesn’t keep parents from partaking of their cinematic babysitting services (by the way, the Chipmunks dig – it’s headed to theaters this December…no kidding).


There is clearly something more to Underdog than just interchangeable super hero elements. Fansites devoted to the dog love to mention his honor, compassion and lack of ego. They enjoy the true love longings of Polly Purebred, and feast on the hissable evil of Simon Barsinister and the original Riff Raff. One woman, Suzanne Muldowney, even went so far as to turn her passion for the crime fighter into performance art. Known as the Underdog Lady, she’s made numerous appearances on Howard Stern, and even has a documentary on her life in the works. Let’s face it – people really love the original, and for Disney to dump all over it this way seems like an act of artificial arrogance. From a creative standpoint, you know they don’t enjoy this kind of commercialization, but it’s been the corporate bottom line too long to back out now. Art has long given way to cash.


So get ready for the mid-August media blitz, the pathetic promotional campaigns, the none too clever Madison Avenue tie-ins (New from the makers of Snausages – Pure Polly Sweatbreads). Star Jason Lee will joke that he made the movie for “his kids”, while messageboards will conspire to consider Scientology as the reason for his continually weak big screen choices (next up – that aforementioned Chipmunks crap). Someone will Q&A the dog, and the original cartoon will get a fleeting mention before the talking heads reset the situation by adding in carefully worded exclamations like “new”, “improved” and the most tragic of all – “update”. If ever an animated hero needed no modernizing, it’s this classic champion of the cartoon people. Bad ideas love to breed in Tinsel Town, however. And with Underdog, the cinematic sodomy continues. 


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Saturday, Jul 7, 2007


As part of a new feature here at SE&L, we will be looking at the classic exploitation films of the ‘40s - ‘70s. Many film fans don’t recognize the importance of the genre, and often miss the connection between the post-modern movements like French New Wave and Italian Neo-Realism and the nudist/roughie/softcore efforts of the era. Without the work of directors like Herschell Gordon Lewis, Joe Sarno and Doris Wishman, along with producers such as David F. Friedman and Harry Novak, many of the subjects that set the benchmark for cinema’s startling transformation in the Me Decade would have been impossible to broach. Sure, there are a few dull, derivative drive-in labors to be waded through, movies that barely deserve to stand alongside the mangled masterworks by the format’s addled artists. But they too represent an important element in the overall development of the medium. So grab your trusty raincoat, pull up a chair, and discover what the grindhouse was really all about as we introduce The Beginner’s Guide to Exploitation.


This week: The genre’s definitive dominatrix lights up the screen in a trio of the seediest, sleaziest exploitation epics ever created.


Olga’s House of Shame/ White Slaves of Chinatown/ Olga’s Dance Hall Girls


In an abandoned coalmine somewhere between the urban sprawl of New York City and the black lung of Butcher Holler, is Olga’s House of Shame. Really nothing more than the Teamster’s former lunch shack converted into a den of inequity and sin, it houses the white babes in bondage of the mob’s favorite dominatrix, Olga. This high cheekboned badass relishes and relies on the torture and torment of women, all in preparation for their eventual use and abuse by paying members of paternalistic society. With the help of her haberdasher turned henchman brother Nick, she finds parolees, the disenchanted, and the heavily impressionable, and before you can say Somerset Maugham, she’s got them manacled, bound with leather, strapped into homemade electric chairs, and prancing like my little pity pony around her Love Canal style estate. True, there is always an ungrateful gal or two wanting to escape the life of degradation for a slight sip of the milk of human kindness. But Olga has some inventive means of quenching the thirst for personal dignity.


Meanwhile, Peking duck and the Eastern/Oriental mindset are given a big kick in the diversity as our Olga sets up shot in the Chop Suey district and, with the help of opium and a lack of political correctness, begins her career as a provider of dope fiend hookers. That’s right, whenever you or your buddies are wondering just where to find the finest and freshest flesh feasts, you need look no further than the gone to seed supermodel Madame O and her White Slaves of Chinatown. Offering a wide assortment of society’s dregs for all manner of mistreatment, you can really get your Marquis De Sade started at this BYOBI (bring your own branding iron) establishment. Everything is offered here, from blowtorches to combs. But it’s not all electrodes and evisceration. Even Olga herself occasionally finds time for a little employer/employee interaction. Picking out one of her more unconscious chanteuses, she moves in and performs the art of seduction the only way she’s ever known how: by beating someone until they pass out.


Finally, what’s an upper class Manhattan housewife to do when she’s grown bored of the cosmopolitan highlife? Well, she can read the want ads, meet up with the slimy sleazeball Nick, and apply for a lifetime contractual position as one of Olga’s Dance Hall Girls. Helping to redefine the term “hostess” so that it requires more horizontal than vertical attention, our decidedly different looking headmistress spends a great deal of down time motivating her indentured bop queens into giving up their goodies for the sake of a sick thrill. And for the most part it works, since even a bored Suzie Housewife is more than happy to throw down the gauntlet of acceptable social behavior and expose her Bill Blass to the paying clientele. But they best be wary of making Miss O angry. She will get Greenwich Village on their hinder and beat them to a bloody pulp. Either that, or endlessly discuss the ramifications of violating contractually agreed upon terms over and over again with the ladies until their brains melt.


Get ready to be incredibly disappointed by this set of Olga films. Those who have long dreamed of seeing these urban grit girl fests in the privacy of their home, hoping they were warped and weird counterpoints to the non-metropolitan masochism of the later Ilsa series, may want a ribald recount. Bereft of even the slightest titillation factor (unless you are deep into S&M—more on this later) and poorly shot, filmed, and acted, the Olga movies offered on this Something Weird triple feature could best be described as monotonous in the most completely literal interpretation of that word. These are movies made for a sole audience, with only one main goal in mind and created from a singular premise. In some ways, the SCTV spoofing of similarly seedy concepts, with such comically precise titles as “Dr. Tongue’s 3-D House of Slave Chicks,” accurately captures the ludicrous laziness of these movies.


Not films, actually, since they tell no cohesive story and are filled with images and archetypes instead of characters. In fact, these cinematic explorations of sleaze function as lurid litmus test, a good gauge to your sexual proclivity. If you find any of the elaborate and carefully staged bondage material the least bit enticing, if your cabbage is tossed when you witness Olga beating a wounded wanton wench back to the stone age, or if you salivate at the sight of long, static tableaus featuring women in various stages of servitude, then you may be the perfect candidate for this trilogy of trauma. But most other exploitation audience members will, once the novelty has worn off, wonder just what the whipping post the big deal is here.



The Olga films are blueprint formations all the way. Each is exactly the same in tone and timbre. We are introduced to Olga and her occupation: white slaver to the world, provider of female pulchritude, and occasional dealer in illegal drugs. She is always associated with a “mob” or “syndicate” who bankrolls her brainwashing and bondage. She always has a less than masculine “assistant” who aids her in the finding of new flesh. And the storylines always center on locating new gals, discovering the traitors, and meting out punishment for crimes, be they actual or thought. There is a minimum of dialogue (Dance Hall Girls has more spoken words than the other two films combined times 20) and a voice-over narrator gives us the Joe Friday style set of facts for everything that is happening on the screen (our storyteller always seems to know even more than what is being shown, or could be inferred from being shown).


We then cut to scenes of women oppressed, filmed matter of factly to provide the raincoat crowd the requisite amount of raunch per second of screening. There is always some fake violence involving electricity, knives, or bizarre implements of defilement. Everything is forced and invariable, offering very little drama or filth. In reality, these films are nothing more than B&D books come to ersatz “life.” Olga’s House of Shame is probably the most entertaining (if one can find these flat visions of vice enjoyable), since it provides the most amusing voice-over story structure, plus the pear shaped asexuality of Olga’s Barry Humphries in training brother Nick. His chase of Elaine through the woods, wobbly male “pouch” in full undulation, is worth the price of admission alone.


But as for the rest of these night terror tortures, Chinatown is too prosaic to make much sense. We do learn a lot about why Asians have had such a hard time, socially, within the United States since the crass, racist comments made about life and crime in the Oriental areas of urban society are downright slanderous. For a film to try and excuse what is basically an exercise in perverted sexuality as some sort of unwanted “yellow plague” seems horribly unfair. Dance Hall Girls is decidedly different, as it offers pages and pages of dialogue. That’s right, Olga and her minions talk…and talk and talk and talk. Seems there’s not a meaningless topic that these miscast actors can’t mangle and moon about for untold moments of monotony. If you ever wondered why House of Shame and Chinatown have ix-nayed on the alking-tay the verbal Valium of Dance Hall will lull you into a sense of silence.


Even worse, all of the Olgas are slim on the skin side. While the nudity level seems to increase as the titles moves along, there is very little revelry in the reveal. It seems that nakedness is treated as an offhanded indirect result of having to persecute and mistreat women. Even when our Olgas decide to get their pre-soft core freak on and rub their prisoners for a little same sex leisure, the newsreel manner of the sequencing makes for limp biscuits all around. It’s easy to understand why these films were such a scandal in the early ‘60s; people used to seeing the nudie cutie booties of various sun worshipers scurry across the screen must have purged their petticoats upon seeing these scenes of pseudo sick sordidness and sadism. But in the light of today’s anything-for-a-jolly social mentality, it all plays out like a very special episode of Fear Factor.


Any fan of exploitation worth their heft in hedonism will definitely want to check out this mad mistress and her love of pain. But the casual fan that has only heard about the outrageous nature of these movies will be disarmed at how devoid of violence they truly are. Olga may be “possessed of a mind so warped that she made sadism a full-time business,” but the movies capturing her mental malady are quite sobering.


 


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